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Why translation is important.

Wondering how translation works, or why translation is important? Won’t Google Translate and AI take over from human translators soon anyway? In Episode 14, I talk to Dr Charlotte Ryland, director of the Stephen Spender Trust and Queen’s College Translation Exchange, about what translation is, and why it just might be the answer to the UK languages ‘crisis’ in schools.

Let’s talk about talking!

What is translation?

Given that both Charlotte and I studied languages at university, we were amused to learn whilst preparing this podcast that neither of us had really known what ‘translation’ was until we started our degrees. Is it just a test of whether you understand the grammar and vocabulary of the language you are learning? Or is it more creative and dynamic than that?

Spoiler alert: we think translation is a creative and dynamic process, involving a good grasp of grammar and vocabulary but not merely testing that knowledge. It is about making choices and considering your reader, as well as thinking about the choices the writer made for their readers when writing the text in the source language. Translation opens up cultures and worlds to us by removing travel and language barriers too.

Translating as a creative writing process

I ask Charlotte how we know when we’ve written a ‘good’ translation, and this opens up a discussion about the process of creative writing that we go through when taking a text that exists in one language for one audience, and transposing that text into another language for another audience. It’s incredibly exciting and nuanced. The role of the translator is to co-write the new text. It is writing with your elbows fixed to the arms of the chair. You’re not changing the plot or dreaming up the characters, but you are bringing the text into being in the language you (usually) know best. There is a lot of editing, and feeling how words sound when you come back to them after a couple of days away, just like Michael Rosen and Kate Clanchy described in earlier episodes.

Translation as outreach

The Stephen Spender Trust runs creative translation workshops in schools, bringing translators into classrooms (just as you might invite a writer in to do a poetry workshop, for example) and empowering teachers to integrate elements of translation into their everyday classroom practice. The idea is to move away from a one-off event where a visitor is parachuted in and then disappears again, and towards a model of sustainable enjoyment of languages in classrooms all the time.

This approach has much success in both primary and secondary schools, with lots of energy and excitement, ideas and suggestions buzzing around classrooms as children tackle authentic texts. Pupils get a lot of pleasure and joy from using their language skills in the moment, rather than (as Charlotte explains) in some traditional outreach models where students or language experts stand at the front and tell children about the pleasure they will get from learning languages in five or ten years.

Charlotte’s role involves organising the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation, where adults and children (in four age ranges) are invited to submit a poem translated from any language into English. They can win ¬£1000 and all winning entries are published. Running a creative translation workshop in school could be an excellent entry point for those teachers or pupils interested in the prize, as well as a good introduction to the world of literary publishing.

Stephen Spender Prize poster for poetry in translation
The Stephen Spender Poetry Prize. Click photo for more details.

Along similar lines, Charlotte’s work with the Queen’s College Translation Exchange involves school workshops but the ambassadors are university languages students.

Creative vs ‘normal’ translation

As I believe Charlotte’s work in schools with both organisations shows, taking a creative approach to translating really opens up children’s linguistic repertoires. It permits them to be multilingual or plurilingual, and to use all their knowledge of ‘language in use’ as they tackle the texts together. I love the parallel with Kate Clanchy’s approach to teaching her multilingual students how to write poetry (listen to her talk about it here) and think there is real potential to bridge the gap between the ‘camps’ of EAL and MFL in schools. Every child is ALREADY a linguist, and a translator. Perhaps our role as educators is to show them the exciting possibilities that open up when they develop the skills involved even further. Could it even be the answer to the UK languages ‘crisis’ and help us break free from the shackles of teaching to a marking scheme?

Creative Translation workshop in Oxford primary school
Creative Translation Ambassadors at a primary school in Cowley, Oxford.

Teachers do not have to be language experts to engage with the translating process either. Charlotte gives an excellent example, known as the Multilingual Monsters activity, that any teacher could use, in any classroom, with any mixture of languages present. We discuss how to empower teachers to enjoy the process too, regardless of their own language backgrounds.

Dare we mention Google Translate?

Finally, what about the future of translating? Are humans going to be redundant once Artificial Intelligence takes over the translation process completely? We discuss whether there really is any opposition between technology and humans. After all, isn’t a dictionary a kind of analogue version of Google Translate?! Discuss.

Join Charlotte Ryland and Cate Hamilton on The Language Revolution Podcast, Episode 14: Why translation is important, here:

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